What It’s Like to Be a Cyclist Working at An Autonomous Vehicle Company
When Matthew O’Donnell, a facilities manager at Argo AI, rides his bike around Austin, Texas—ranked by advocacy groups as one of America’s best bicycling cities—he still feels somewhat vulnerable to cars and trucks. He’s acutely aware of how busy Austin is and how many drivers appear to be distracted behind the wheel, like most large U.S. cities.
Even in a cyclist-conscious city, one with plentiful bike lanes, biking clubs and miles of bikes-only trails, O’Donnell approaches intersections with care. “My strategy is being very visible,” he says. “I kind of assert and go through and make eye contact with the person.”
Safety for bicyclists is becoming a growing concern as road fatalities in the U.S. continue to rise. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its estimates for 2021 fatalities earlier this month, showing overall deaths are at a 16-year high and deaths for bicyclists are up 5 percent.
When O’Donnell makes contact with a driver, he knows he’s been seen. But he feels even more assured when he’s cycling and encounters autonomous vehicles (AVs), like the kind tested in Austin by his employer, Argo AI, because the AVs are constantly scanning the roads with an array of sensors.
“I would much rather see an autonomous vehicle,” he says. “An autonomous vehicle is going to be much more conservative.”
O’Donnell occupies a relatively unique position among the estimated 57 million cyclists in the U.S.: He’s an employee at a leading AV products and services company with a presence across multiple major cities in the U.S. and Germany, and he’s an avid cyclist who encounters his company’s vehicles near home.
O’Donnell is also the leader of “Cycling @ Argo,” one of many different employee resource groups within the company where members can discuss tips about their hobbies or challenges or just socialize and have fun. Cycling @ Argo, has more than 200 members (out of more than 2,000 Argo employees) who regularly get together for rides in their home cities. The group has its own logo, makes stickers and apparel, exchanges cycling routes, equipment recommendations, repair tips, and more.
“I would much rather see an autonomous vehicle”
The group hosted the second annual “Bike-to-Work Week Competition” between May 16 and May 22, where employees were challenged to a friendly contest to see who could achieve the highest score in several categories — climbing (elevation gained), furthest distance traveled on a bike during the week and longest time spent riding during the week. The results were tracked on Argo’s team leaderboards on a workout tracking app.
The Cycling @ Argo resource group also hosted a bike scavenger hunt the same week asking employees to take photos out on their rides focused on specific prompts. Additionally, throughout the year, group members share photos of their rides, giving colleagues across different offices a chance to see new trails, routes and cities through the eyes, and cameras, of their peers.
So how did O’Donnell find himself leading this active group? He joined Argo after being enamored by its nimble nature, its tech focus and the creative freedom the culture offers, which could, he thought, inspire any number of novel safety features for cyclists like him.
“I came from a slower, older company. And this is a cutting-edge start-up,” he says.
He’s also supportive of Argo’s efforts to enlist cyclists and advocacy groups from outside the company in the development, testing, deployment and best practices of its technology. Notably, Argo worked closely with the League of American Bicyclists to last year release a set of guidelines for how AVs should behave around cyclists to encourage safety while sharing the road.
That focus on safety comes at a time when, nationwide, it’s becoming increasingly dangerous to be a cyclist. According to a recent Outside magazine report, roads are becoming more precarious for cyclists. Cycling fatalities have been on the rise since 2010, according to the report, shortly after hitting an all-time low.
In 2020, the National Highway Safety Administration reported 932 cyclists were killed following collisions with motor vehicles. That same year, cyclists made nearly a half-million emergency room visits, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
O’Donnell knows the stats because he sees the potential for them to play out from two angles—from behind his handlebars and from behind his steering wheel, “I’m paranoid about cyclists in Austin, with so many turn lanes,” O’Donnell says. “There are so many cyclists here. And the way the sun sets here, there’s a golden hour with glare. I have to look even harder for cyclists.”
And as a seasoned cyclist, who is just as likely to ride through downtown streets as he is to embark on a 30-mile ride through Hill Country, O’Donnell says safety boils down to trust. He says he’s glad to be working at a company that he can trust to prioritize keeping cyclists safe, employs many among its ranks, and actively seeks out their feedback on its technology on how to make interactions between cyclists and AV’s safer.